Pork ribs have a long tradition in the old world of barbecue, ranking up there with brisket and pulled pork in competitions as a true art form. Successful pork ribs are tender and flavorful with a nice smoky taste. To achieve this, the ribs need to be cooked low and slow with a good dose of smoke. This means you need a smoker, your choice of wood, a spice rub, and a lot of time and patience. If you do not have a smoker, you can use a kettle charcoal grill. A full rack of ribs can be smoked in about 4 hours, but if you have the time, let it cook longer—the longer you smoke, the more flavor you will get.
Prepping the Ribs
The first step in making pork ribs is to get the meat seasoned, but first, the meat must be membrane-free. Let the ribs come up to room temperature, rinse off in cold water, and remove the membrane from the back. Although some cooks believe you do not have to remove the membrane, others feel that it is a must. The membrane (called the peritoneum) is a paper-thin piece of tissue that is attached to the underside of the ribs. The membrane can block the uptake of smoke and create a barrier to your seasonings.
To remove the membrane, lay the ribs on a flat surface meat-side down. Take a sharp knife and begin peeling the membrane from one corner near the bone. In most cases, a lobster fork works well for this job. Once you have a good piece peeled back, grasp it with a paper towel to establish a firm grip and begin pulling. If the membrane is intact, it should not be too much trouble to remove. With the membrane removed, rinse off the ribs again and pat dry with paper towels.
Seasoning the Ribs
One trick used by several barbecue competitors is to coat the ribs with prepared yellow mustard; it seals the seasonings in place and provides a nice crust over the surface of the ribs. There is no need to use a gourmet or expensive product since the smoking process will remove the mustard flavor.
If you prefer to rub your spice mixture directly into the pork ribs, then you can place it on the ribs first, and then carefully apply the mustard. Alternatively, you can sprinkle the rub over the mustard or use a mustard-based rub. It is really a matter of preference.
Setting Up the Smoker
When choosing the type of wood to put in the smoker's firebox, consider a blend of oak, hickory, and a little mesquite. With a little experimentation, however, you can come up with the kind of smoke you prefer. Light the firebox and let the smoker heat up. A good smoking temperature is around 225 F (110 C). You can go lower if you plan on doing a long smoke, but do not go any higher.
Cooking and Serving the Rack
Once the pork ribs are seasoned and the smoker is at the temperature you want, then you are ready to begin smoking the ribs. Place the ribs in the smoker and that is it. There is nothing for you to do for the next several hours except for making sure the temperature of the smoker is maintained.
The ribs should be cooked through and tender after 4 hours, but let it cook longer if you can. The longer you smoke at a low temperature the more tender and flavorful the ribs will be. Just remember that you need to hit an internal temperature of 165 F (75 C) before the ribs can be served. It is best to use a meat thermometer.
To serve, cut the ribs individually. Many barbecue aficionados do not see a reason for a finishing sauce, but if you are a big fan of sauces and cannot imagine serving ribs without a sauce, then consider using a mild recipe with a thin consistency that will not overpower the ribs.